(Grand Rapids, MI) Putting aside our carnivorous ways (for one meal, at least), we make our way to East Grand Rapids and a little place called Marie Catrib's. Situated in an area that has experienced a growth spurt of great eateries over the last couple years, this deli-slash-restaurant differentiates itself by offering gluten-free vegan options on the extensive menu. Will these options be too far out for our tastes, though? Bravely, we head out to see if Marie Catrib's can live up to its reputation...
As notorious foodies and proud owners of a Toyota Prius, it is mind-boggling that we have not yet visited the only restaurant in Grand Rapids (to my knowledge) offering parking for alternative fuel vehicles. Even more surprising, when we arrive at the tail end of breakfast, there is a spot open. Off to a good start!
We enter the restaurant from the back, joining at least two other parties already waiting for a table. A server attends to us promptly, putting our name on a legal pad after inquiring politely about our seating preferences (at the counter, outdoors, etc). We are encouraged to wander around, peering into refrigerated showcases for the varied salads, desserts, and deli offerings. Marie Catrib herself comes out of the kitchen to present muffin bits to the waiting parties. Even as I swallow the mouthful of moist, sweet poppyseed confection, we are summoned to our table for two.
Our timing is perfect; the restaurant is just switching over to lunch, so we are able to order off either menu. Our server is bright and friendly, encouraging our choices and efficiently keeping us in water and iced tea. I start with a tall glass of hand-squeezed orange juice that is warm, pulpy, and (sadly for the rest of the diners) the last from their fresh oranges! Juliet suggests we start with the Trio of Dips and although I am not all that excited about the dish, I humor her decision.
A full bowl of soft, warm pita wedges arrives alongside the dips, which are arranged in generous piles on a rectangular platter. I start with the baba ghanouj. The spicy eggplant mixture explodes in my mouth, tickling my taste buds with velvety heat. I can't help exclaiming my admiration for the dish and reluctantly move on to the cucumber yogurt sauce. My first bite almost makes me weep with joy. There is some kind of magic going on here, with tangy yogurt, some kind of citrus acidity, cucumber, and probably feta. The flavor profile begins with the creamy cuke, then rapidly transmogrifies on your tongue to puckery delight. If you haven't had the pleasure of this dip, you are definitely missing out.
I can't stress this enough: the cucumber yogurt sauce at Marie Catrib's is one of the best things I have ever eaten.
Unfortunately I find the hummous too bland, but I have no qualms about moving back to the other two dips. In between grunts and moans of pleasure, we demolish the pita wedges and leave a bit of each dip to take back home with us. (I know already that I will have a difficult time not attacking the cuke sauce later in the evening.) At this time my Turkish coffee is also delivered. I savor the sugar-spiked caffeinated concoction in small doses, and decide espresso is more up my alley.
For my main course, I decide on a sandwich that is too funny not to order: The Larry David. I've been dreaming about a good vegetarian burger ever since our trip last November to Phoenix. I'm hoping to recapture that experience today. The lentil, wild rice, tomato, and onion "burger" nestles amid grilled onions, crisp spinach leaves, tomato slices, and spicy tomato jam on thick slices of Branny Oat bread slathered with garlic veganaise. My first bite is messy, as the contents slide away from each other, but it is fantastic. The grilled onion slices are sweet and there is a nice kick from the garlic and spices. The patty is the texture of rare hamburger but the taste is lentil. I prefer vegetarian burgers to have a bit more rigidity but I know it's hard to accomplish. The bread is crispy, sweet, and light despite being oat-based.
Sated, we box up the remainders and peruse the showcases for goodies we may use for upcoming meals. I am surprisingly full and very, very happy. Marie Catrib's radiates good will and happiness, the overall mood of the place rubbing off on everyone else, it seems. We head back out into the hot, summery day with bags full of leftovers and smiles on our faces. We'll be back soon. Oh, yes...we'll be back.
My first visit to Marie Catrib's was a few years back and I remember thinking how much Jeremy would like it. Why it's taken me so long to actually get him here is beyond me. Our weekdays are busy and I tend to think of her place on the weekends which is unfortunately when their hours are more limited. After this visit, however, I am convinced we will make more of an effort to visit during the week as well as stop in to her deli for some fabulous take-away.
We arrive at the restaurant to easily find a parking spot. Kudos to whoever thought up the idea of having reserved parking for "alternative fuel vehicles". Jeremy slides our Prius into a spot and we walk in expecting to find a loooooong line on a Saturday at lunchtime. Turns out we are the third party in line and we are seated after a very short wait.
Three things really strike me at Marie Catrib's on this visit. The first is the spectacular service. All the servers are exceptionally friendly and genuine with an eye for detail. The second is the very visible presence of Marie Catrib; she's talking to her staff, she's handing out samples of quick breads to folks waiting in line (my poppyseed bread sample was over the moon), AND she's cooking in the kitchen. I actually witness her pull someone's order out of the oven. I've been to a lot of fancy-schmancy restaurants with big name chefs and it's rare these days to find the chef in the kitchen, it seems.
Third, and probably the most important, is how incredibly gorgeous and delicious the food is. During our brief wait for a table, we see about 12 dishes come out of the kitchen and each one looks beautiful. How wonderful it is to find a place where the food tastes as good as it looks.
We start with the trio of dips, featuring hummus, baba ghanouj and cucumber yogurt sauce served with warm, soft pita triangles. The baba ghanouj is darker than I've seen before with flecks of the eggplant skin mixed throughout. It is smoky, slight spicy, and almost meaty in its richness. I would eat this on toast as a meal; it is simply amazing. I move on to the hummus, which is slightly chunky and a bit more runny than what I make at home. It's just overpowered by the raw garlic and I know already I will be tasting this hummus for the rest of the day. Finally I move on to the yogurt sauce which Jeremy has been "oohing and aahing" over. It is indeed worthy of oohs and aahs. The yogurt is unbelievably thick, creamy, and rich. The finely diced cukes are refreshing and cool and there is a citrusy-peppery kick at the end. I find my favorite combo is a pita with some baba ghanouj and a schmear of the yogurt sauce.
Just as we finish our last pita triangle (there is still plenty of dip left) our sandwiches arrive. Knowing we're eating vegetarian tonight, I splurge on the lamb gyro which is rolled in a warm pita with sliced red onions, diced tomatoes, and more of that cucumber yogurt sauce. The lamb is tender and well-seasoned, and I'm pleased to find it's recognizable as slices of actual meat, not one of the slabs off a big roll of unrecognizable "gyro" meat you get at most places. The tomatoes are sweet and I'm beginning to see how they enhance a dish (remember, I've deplored raw tomatoes my entire life and am learning to like them). The red onions give the gyro a fresh "bite" and the yogurt sauce just brings it all together. It's one of the best gyros I've ever had, but I find I can only eat half. Even though I'm stuffed, I am already looking forward to tomorrow's lunch when I will finish off this lovely lamb treat.
We are both full and almost giddy in our excitement at finally making it here. It's such a treat to find a rare gem like this in our hometown and we vow to return soon. The food is fresh and local, Marie's story is inspiring, and the restaurant's philosophy is truly refreshing. I encourage you to visit their website immediately (www.mariecatribs.com) and the restaurant as soon as possible.